I’m pretty sure every Eagles fan knows about Nelson Agholor’s story and his remarkable bounce back season in 2017. It was one of the top storylines of last season and just another reminder that with young players, specifically wide receivers, it might take some time for them to finally put it all together and be able to play at a high level.
The Eagles have their starters at WR pretty much set. Agholor remains in the slot while Alshon Jeffery returns as the X receiver on the outside and free agent acquisition Mike Wallace replaces Torrey Smith opposite of Jeffery. Behind them, many people anticipate that 2nd year wideout Mack Hollins will be the 4th receiver. Hollins might have played sparingly last season, but he did come up with a couple of key grabs, most notably his 64-Yard TD reception against the Redskins in Week 7. However, Hollins has had a rather unspectacular preseason up to this point. He hasn’t looked bad, but he also hasn’t stood out the way some would have expected. Turns out, Hollins had sports hernia surgery in the offseason, as reported by Adam Caplan. Caplan stated that even though a player can come back in 6 weeks, it takes about 3-4 months to get back to normal.
All of this has opened the door for other wide receivers to earn some meaningful playing time in the preseason and maybe, although unlikely, even grab that 4th receiver spot on the depth chart.
Enter: Shelton Gibson.
Gibson was selected in the 5th round of the 2017 NFL Draft, 166th overall. The West Virginia wide receiver was touted for his elite speed and big play ability. He might have only run a 4.50 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine, but he bounced back by running a 4.39 at his pro day. And if you watch him on film, it’s easy to see that his pro day time is more accurate to what his actual play speed is. He also possesses elite quickness with good vision and elusiveness. And he had experience returning kicks in college. Taking him late in the draft made him a low-risk, medium/high reward investment as someone who could contribute on special teams and maybe develop into legitimate deep threat.
It didn’t start out that way for Gibson, though. He struggled at rookie mini-camp and it never got easier for him. He was continuously dropping passes all throughout training camp. His lack of an extensive route tree didn’t help at all either. He looked lost as a rookie and wasn’t adjusting well. Even when it came to the aspects of his game that were supposed to be strengths, he wasn’t delivering on those ends either. It was easy to write him off as just another late round draft prospect that wouldn’t pan out.
But as was the case with Agholor, it might have been too early to count Gibson out of anything.
We’ve seen a completely different Gibson this year. From the start of training camp and throughout both preseason games he’s been consistent and made numerous big plays, and in different ways.
His deep threat ability…
His kick return ability…
Shelton Gibson showing up on special teams. Increasing his stock to make the 53 pic.twitter.com/ArzC2hXgAN
— Gayle Saunders (@EagleSessions) August 16, 2018
Shelton Gibson (2017 5th round pick) will make this Eagles roster because of his special teams value. He’s averaging 29 yards per kick return this preseason and is a speedy gunner on the punt team #FlyEaglesFly pic.twitter.com/cVld17wkWO
— Matt Martellucci (@matthewlucci_) August 20, 2018
And his route running ability…
Shot 3 – Hard to say any #Eagles player has improved more from 2017 to 2018 more than WR Shelton Gibson. Two touchdowns in two games so far. Speed to burn. Much more confident now both at the catch point and as a route runner. Active on Special Teams. Excited for his potential. pic.twitter.com/9RMahDOdV6
— Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) August 17, 2018
I’ve been hard on Shelton Gibson but that was a pretty route and he’s making this roster. Shown serious improvement in his game after being a non-factor as a rookie.
— Michael Kist (@MichaelKistNFL) August 17, 2018
Gibson’s development and impressive play has all but officially earned him a spot on the 53-man roster already. What us Eagles fans are trying to determine now is what exactly his role is going to be this season and how good of a player we can realistically expect him to be.
The first question is easier to answer than the second. We can pretty much shoe Gibson in as the team’s kick returner. The Eagles have had their fair share of really good punt returners over the years like DeSean Jackson, Darren Sproles, and Brian Westbrook, but having a dangerous kick returner is a different story. Gibson looks like he has the potential to be the best one to come along in a long time.
As far as the WR position goes he won’t be surpassing any of the starters, that’s a given. But can he take that 4th WR spot on the depth chart over Hollins? I’m not going to say it’s likely. Hollins played well in that role in 2017 and the team still likes his potential very much. At the same time though, it’s not totally out of the question. Hollins might be a very capable deep threat too because of his size and ability to track the deep ball in the air, but he obviously doesn’t have the same type of speed and explosiveness that Gibson has, and elite speed is always something that the opposing defenses have to account for first. That’s what stretches the field vertically for an offense, and as long as Gibson has that he’s going to have an advantage right out of the gate.
So how good can Gibson be? What is his realistic potential and ceiling? That’s harder to say. When evaluated his game before the draft last year, I saw him as someone who could play a specific role for an offense for years but will probably never reach Pro-Bowl level. Ted Ginn, Travis Benjamin, and John Brown; those are guys whom Gibson can possibly have a similar career to. But it’s also difficult to be certain about that type of projection until we see how he plays in the regular season when a defense has a gameplan in place and is more prepared. Phillip Dorsett and Tavon Austin are examples of guys who have that elite speed but were never able to consistently and properly use it as a tool at the pro level to elevate their play. It’s very possible Gibson ends up like them as well.
But what’s great about the situation is that the Eagles don’t have to rely on Gibson right now. If all he turns out to be in 2018 is a reliable kick returner who has a handful of big returns then that’s already great production they’ve been able to add considering they were getting nothing from him in 2017. If it turns out the way we want then Agholor, Jeffery, and Wallace will all remain healthy and have good years, so all Gibson would need to do is make plays whenever he’s called upon, just like Hollins did for us last season. And after this season is done and over with and Wallace has left for another team, maybe at that point Gibson (or Hollins) will be ready to step in and be that deep threat on the outside. But there’s no need for that right now as long as Agholor, Jeffery, and Wallace are all healthy.
It wasn’t long ago (in 2016 to be exact) that the Eagles had the worst WR corps in the whole league. Agholor and Treggs sure do remember, they were a part of it. To know that 2 years later we now could have one of the deepest WR corps in the league is truly astonishing. And it could stay that way if Gibson continues to develop and get better, just like Agholor has/is.